Sunday, November 29, 2009

Swiss Litigation

Swiss Army that is. And if I were in the upper mucky-muck of Swiss Army Brands Ltd I'd be a little pissed at the latter 20th century Keystone Cops -- the TSA, or Transportation Safety Administration -- for cutting into sales. You know that event that changed our country forever ('9/11'), well it made possible the careers of all these folks charged with protecting us from ourselves ... err, and the unforeseen threats of terrorism too, I guess.

I fly a lot these days. Usually it is out of MSP International, our local airport. Earlier this year a friend recalled an overheard conversation at our airport between two folks in TSA uniforms who were off duty. The jist of it was one quote: "If only people knew how much of what we do is just for show." Well the GAO has apparently picked up on that theatricality. You see, the TSA has spent money like crazy since its inception but to little or no avail. The article I recently read cited none of the fancy new security systems they'd been developing ever went into service.

During one heavy travel period this year I flew out twice within two weeks. I showed up, checked in and made my way through the cattle chute known as 'Security.' Nearing the scanner conveyor I slipped off my shoes and overheard a TSA member barking at other passengers, "Shoes on the conveyor, people. Your shoes must be directly on the conveyor!" He backed this up by marching up and down a couple of lines and yanking folks' shoes out of bins and slamming them onto the conveyor. Point conveyed. Terrorists get craftier by the day, y'know. Who are we to question?

Two weeks later I went through the same line at the same airport and it was business as usual -- shoes in the bin -- no muss, no fuss. I asked around, "Do we need to put the shoes directly on the conveyor?" Nobody knew what the hell I was talking about. Security measures perhaps. Just some prick two weeks earlier fucking with everyone for the hell of it more like it.

So what are these people, this governmental organization, doing anyway?

Well, they're confiscating shit left and right. You see it when you fly and I do too. There's the 2 oz rule and the ziploc baggy rule and the laptop rule and the bottles of Evian and Gatorade swiped from folks just trying to hydrate or die. And there are the pocket knives (not to mention nail clippers). I'm talking about small pocket knives, keychain knives etc. The kind that are little longer than a key itself and of little consequence in the hands of anyone except Chuck Norris. Funny, I don't believe the TSA has started checking for sharpened keys because you could do just as much harm to someone aboard an airplane with a filed key as you could most of these knives.

However, there's no arguing the rules with someone in an airport who has been beknighted with the authority to tase and subdue your ass. In fact, in the "new reality" you'd be well advised to avoid dissecting semantics or literality with anyone employed in an airport. I once got charged the bike fee -- the fee for an oversized bag which encases a partially disassembled bike frame (a large bag indeed) -- for a regulation luggage size bag which I had foolishly revealed to the agent contained a bike (a break-apart bike). I gave an honest answer to an honest question, but she got stuck on that word 'bicycle' and the rest is $150 worth of history.

I have a 20-year-old Swiss Army knife which has been carried daily in my pocket for that duration, on countless backpacking trips, climbing adventures and everywhere I've been in between. It's gotten me out of many a jam and saved a plethora of wine drinkers by the by (it's the magical corkscrew everyone forgets to carry). I have been fortunate enough to avoid confiscation by remembering to place it in my checked bag. It's missing a handle (I glued both back on twice) and the blades are thinner now from dozens of honings. I've entertained getting a replacement more than once over the past few years.

Recently it came to my attention I should check Ebay for Swiss Army knives. I don't shop Ebay much, but I've bought and sold tons of bike stuff on Ebay. Occasionally you can find a really screaming deal if you're savvy. I discovered one needs little savvy to get good deals on Swiss Army knives, however. Just log on, search and it won't take long to discover some conspicuously low-priced auctions and buy-it-now deals on all models of Swiss knives.

The best deals to be had? Well, I discovered the sellers have little remorse admitting in plain print in their listings that these knives they're selling (most often in lots of 3, 5, 10 or more) are TSA 'forfeiture' or confiscated knives. Dozens of sellers on Ebay in locations all around the US are selling these knives for next to nothing compared to retail. And because most people have no clue how to sharpen knives, most of those being sold might as well be new except for scuffs on the handles and blades from being carried in pockets and bags.

So the next time you forget to clean your pockets before airport security and that innocent pen knife you carry every day gets lifted by the TSA with no chance of retrieving it, you might want to check Ebay. If you don't find your exact knife I guarantee you'll find a deal that will most likely wipe your remorse away.

Perhaps someday the TSA will be held accountable for giving away the personal property of millions of citizens it is supposed to be protecting. And those citizens making a few bucks off those of us ignorant enough to attempt to carry a pocket knife onto a plane? Well, you might want to get your good deal and then rip 'em a new one with negative feedback.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Shop of Bikes

Old school/New school. Nearly 30 years difference in age and design development but the same basic principle. I can tell you, though -- they behave nothing like one another in practice. Still, both are sculptures of metallic beauty. (Either could be yours soon on Ebay.)

A photo of the bike shop. For those who follow my blog and have kept up with all I've done in the garage/woodshop, it is apparent I need to spend some time imparting such order to the basement. I've bought tubes, chains, bottom brackets and not soon afterward discovered I had the part I needed hidden in a box I had yet to unpack. Argh. That is one of my first generation woodshop benches now functioning as my main bike bench -- built in 1999 and since modified slightly with a pegboard back and extra shelf.

There is decent head clearance in the basement but it is far from ideal. (Our basement was originally earthen -- like most Midwestern basements -- dug 6-8" deeper than it is now that a concrete floor has been added.) However, it makes a good space for bikes and maintains an even temperature throughout the winter. That's a plus when it's ten below and the garage is basically off limits. (I still can't get the Big Dummy down here for maintenance however.) Incidentally the small box to the left of the bench is our boiler, followed just beyond by the water heater. You tend to warm up quickly if you're sawing a headtube or leaning against the pipes drinking a beer. By the way, the floor joists are all true 1" by 12" lumber and have shrunk little over the years. Funny to own a home that allows you to get why we use those now arbitrary numbers to call out lumber dimensions.

Tools organized, degreaser and beer at hand. Some might argue no further organization need be accomplished. Yes, Houts, that's the 'Cow misses Patch' photo to the left of the bench, stuck into the 9 x 9" solid column (the main center beam of the house is basically the same dimension, nearly 50 ft long, but only two pieces of wood). I still hang that photo in every shop I establish and I always think of you ... well, and Cow.

Goodnight, folks.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Garage With a View

"Oh, hi. How's it going?"
"Great. That's good to hear. Yeah ... thanks for stopping by."
"Where have I been? Oh, I dunno. Around ... you know how it goes."
"Yep, thought so."

I'm gonna ease back into this thing, the blog that is, with some miscellaneous and sundry updates. Nothing very earth shattering has gone down. I wasn't in the hospital with swine flu or locked up in detox. Just kickin' it with friends and family y'know. Fall is a time for revelry and irreverence. Plenty of both going on and, well, maybe they've just sapped my energy for writing. Personally, I blame Vegas, but that's just me.

Since we moved into this house in July 2008, I have been on a mission to create the perfect woodshop space in half of our two-car garage -- all 217.5 square feet of it. I think I've mentioned this before. In fact, I know I have. You'll just have to bear with me, I guess.

Woodworking is no new hobby of mine; I grew up tinkering with wood. My Dad was a carpenter who in his spare time built reproduction muzzleloading rifles and period accoutrement patterned after 18th century designs. Later he restored furniture and built a number of fine pieces himself. I suppose I inherited from him no sums of money or fancy possessions, but I did gain a love for working with my hands. For that I'd barter not even a king's ransom.

I can't shake it. At times I feel it is the thing that drives me most passionately. I've had a string of "professional" jobs that I've been fortunate to love in one way or another. I think he would be proud. What blue collar parent isn't happy their kids are working with their minds and not their hands, after all?

My jobs have tied me to the outdoors and allowed me to peddle in things I pedal -- bikes now, but previously canoes and kayaks, climbing and backpacking gear. It's not like I'm a guide or something -- living in dirtbag glamor out of the back of an oxidizing Land Rover, gracing the glossy recycled pages of a Patagonia catalog. I sell stuff. It's fun stuff, stuff that isn't going to overdose people or rot them from the inside as they sit glued to electronic gadgets and LCD flat panel screens. For that I am thankful. But, still, I sell stuff. I make my living in front of a computer screen writing emails, compiling reports, laying out processes, policies, plans and documents. I am a cog in the capitalist machine and we all know what oils the gears of that machine. (Kinda tough when you also carry Marxist tendencies in your heart.)

Anyway, I think I was talking about my garage and maybe leading up to what it means to me. Members of the fairer reproductive set (no, not the Kennedy clan) can say things like "man cave" or "man space" but I believe that belittles the deeper implications of what my garage shop means to me. I want to throw out two caveats: 1) I've spilt plenty of beer in said garage with my guy friends telling stupid guy jokes and whatnot, and 2) I admit I fully grasp that what I am about to describe will mean nothing to some people. I don't get you people, but I am trying to become more tolerant and open to those who care little about systems and order -- those who think "work triangle" means gossiping in the office about a certain office mate, not achieving the most efficient use of a limited space that supports a subset of highly repetitive tasks.

This is the fourth woodwork-specific shop space I have designed. My first was on the back porch of a tiny rental house my first wife and I occupied from 1997-1999. My Dad came into town for a weekend and we bought the lumber and materials to frame, deck and wire the 6 by 12 foot concrete porch within the span of 2 days. Most of my experience working alongside my father had been while I was younger. He'd explained things like roof pitch and how to mark it out with a framing square. As a kid, that stuff would go in one ear and out the other. But that weekend I absorbed volumes. It was to be the last time he and I would work so closely together, ever. I've since thought back to that experience and wished I had a dozen more tutorials like it. But I won't. Even though I went on to study calculus, probability theory, differential equations, statics, dynamics and physics I never grasped the proficiency with which my Dad and his peers were able to perform such "simple" math on the fly at a jobsite.

I grew into that first tiny shop and my skills grew some too. My next space was the basement of a large rental house. I had so much room but still too little experience. My father-in-law lent me a bandsaw and a jointer and I had no idea how to use them or maintain them. I was still of the belief that power tools weren't supposed to need adjustment from the factory or occasional sharpening and tuning. He gave me a decent set of bench chisels and I sharpened them all wrong. I bought my first plane and set it on a shelf when all I did with it was butcher wood marginally better than hacking through it with my poorly honed chisels. I was spoiled though with space. It was pretty nice while it lasted.

Things went on hiatus as we moved into and then out of a small house from 2000-2001. I packed everything up and mothballed it in my mother-in-law's greenhouse. When I moved to Minnesota in 2002 I sold to friends the tools that were too big to carry (tablesaw, router table, miter saw) and kept the rest in boxes. Except for occasionally breaking out the cordless drill or saw, most of my stuff didn't see the light of day again until July 2008 when I began moving into this garage.

That is where our story resumes. (Lucky for you, I'll stagger your monotony with some photos!)

Previously, my workspace had three sources of light: 1) A generous assortment of fluorescent worklights. Nice if you need them but far from ideal on their own. 2) A garage door on the west wall. A beautiful option for nice days but less than adequate for cold or rainy weather and what if you want to fire up the table saw at 10p.m. on a summer's night? 3) A small 2X2 window pane on an anchored door (I don't even have a key if I wanted to remove the 3" drywall screws holding it closed) on the southeast wall. I'd been daydreaming of windows and skylights and anything else that could bring some real sunlight streaming into the shop since I began outfitting it over a year ago. With the basic space allocation finalized this summer I knew where I needed to place a natural light source. I built my final bench and shelves in anticipation of popping a window smack in the center of the east wall.

Here's the interior view of the east wall with the bench moved away. Dark, eh?

And here is the exterior view of the same wall. A lot of bland siding. This is also the view from the kitchen at the back of the house. (Some dark gray touch-ups indicate where I had to patch holes from pesky woodpeckers attacking the garage. Placing a suet feeder out there was the instant remedy for that problem.)

Making progress with new king studs, jack studs and sills in place. After measuring once, twice, three times ... hell, I think I measured nearly a dozen times because there was no going back from the next step -- cutting the hole all the way through. One website I'd consulted referred to it as "violating the building envelope." Yes, that is a descriptive phrase.

Once you're sure of the whole deal, grabbing the reciprocating saw and plunging it through the masonite is a cool feeling. I was even more pleased because our annoying neighbors who like to argue and play loud music at all hours of the night were hanging out on their back porch the entire time. Perhaps the next window will be installed on a full moon at midnight just for effect.

Marking the rough opening to square it up with the circular saw. Compared to cabinetry doing something where a sixteenth or even an eighth of an inch mattered little was fun.

Here's the trimmed, finished product complete with bird feeder. The new window is nice. I find myself spending some time staring out of it at different times of the day. Most mornings, as I'm loading my bike, I take a few minutes to walk over and see the birds going nuts at the feeder while I notice where the light illuminates previously dark recesses of my shop. I sink away in my mind to imagine a time when the projects of the future -- the moments that will be spent there with perfect golden sunlight guiding my pencil to mark boards or position material to make a cut -- are all that will occupy my mind.

I also think about how the proficiency to install the window, simple as it is, would not have been possible without my Dad. Years ago when we'd built my back porch shop we didn't quite finish it that weekend. I distinctly recall some of those final tasks seemed extremely daunting to me. I called him to ask for advice and instruction. In one of the clearest moments of wisdom I ever recall my father displaying, he calmly told me, "You know all you need to know. You can do it."

The window, and the shop, mean something intangible to me. Those who get it, get it, perhaps. But I'll keep thinking and keep writing in hopes of better realizing it for myself.